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Networks and Traces
Elleke Boehmer & Anshuman A Mondal
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To cite this article: Elleke Boehmer & Anshuman A Mondal (2012): Networks and Traces, Wasafiri, 27:2, 30-35
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Networks and Traces
AN INTERVIEW WITH AMITAV GHOSH
Amitav Ghosh was born in
Calcutta and grew up in India,
Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. He
studied in Delhi, Oxford and
Alexandria and is the author of
The Circle of Reason, The Shadow
Lines, In An Antique Land,
Dancing in Cambodia, The
Calcutta Chromosome, The Glass
Palace, The Hungry Tide, Sea of Poppies and River of Smoke,
the last two comprising the first two volumes of a projected
series of novels, The Ibis Trilogy. River of Smoke was published
in 2011, after this interview was conducted. The Circle of
Reason was awarded France’s Prix Me´dicis in 1990, and The
Shadow Lines won two prestigious Indian prizes the same
year, the Sahitya Akademi Award and the Ananda Puraskar.
The Calcutta Chromosome won the Arthur C Clarke Award for
1997 and The Glass Palace won the International e-Book Award
at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2001. In January 2005 The Hungry
Tide was awarded the Crossword Book Prize, a major Indian
award. Sea of Poppies was shortlisted for the 2008 Man
Booker Prize and won the Crossword Book Prize and the India
Plaza Golden Quill Award.
Amitav Ghosh’s work has been translated into over twenty
languages and he has served on the Jury of the Locarno Film
Festival (Switzerland) and the Venice Film Festival (2001). His
essays have been published in The New Yorker, The New
Republic and The New York Times, by Penguin India in the
collection The Imam and the Indian and by Houghton Mifflin
USA as Incendiary Circumstances. Ghosh has taught in many
universities in India and the USA including Delhi University,
Columbia, Queens College and Harvard. In January 2007 he
was awarded the Padma Shri, one of India’s highest honours,
by the President of India. In 2010, Amitav Ghosh was awarded
honorary doctorates by Queens College, New York, and the
Sorbonne, Paris. Along with Margaret Atwood, he was also a
joint winner of a Dan David Award for 2010.
Amitav Ghosh visited the University of Oxford between 1
and 3 March 2010 as a guest of the AHRC-funded ‘Making
Britain: South Asian Visions of Home and Abroad’ project, and
to open the ‘Indian Traces in Oxford’ exhibition and
accompanying workshop in the Bodleian Library. ‘Indian
Traces in Oxford’, co-curated by Professor Elleke Boehmer and
Dr Sumita Mukherjee in collaboration with the Bodleian,
examined Indian students’, writers’, intellectuals’ and
politicians’ involvement in University of Oxford life and
culture since 1850, as reflected in letters, autograph books,
lithographs and woodcuts, photographs, cloth and other
mementoes. Since studying for his Oxford DPhil thesis in
anthropology Amitav Ghosh, in his guises as both novelist and
cultural historian, has maintained a far-reaching exploratory
interest in the intricate and embedded networks of trade, war,
love and environmental interaction that have connected India
with other regions and nations, near and far-flung, over the
centuries. It would be difficult to think of a more appropriate
figure than Ghosh to have presided at the opening of ‘Indian
Traces in Oxford’.
On the day after the workshop, Elleke Boehmer and
Anshuman Mondal met the writer to consider the burdens
of colonial history and to examine further the imaginative
resonances for him of the networks of empire, trade, migration
and transportation.
Elleke Boehmer Amitav Ghosh, you are very welcome here in
Oxford. It’s been a privilege to host you for the opening of the
‘Indian Traces in Oxford’ exhibition. Not only are you an
alumnus of the University, as you outlined in your opening
talk, but your work also maps cross-cultural webs and
interactions, as does the exhibition. Indeed, your remarkable
travelogue, In an Antique Land, grew out of your research for
the thesis. Could we begin by exploring what the diasporic
ramification and spread of Indian cultural influences and
Indian peoples across the world has meant for your work? In
asking this, I’m thinking of the ways in which your narratives
follow the transverse routes of trade, indenture and labour
migration. Motifs of interchange and cross-border journeying
recur in novel after novel.
Amitav Ghosh Absolutely, yes, the Indian diaspora has been
fundamental to my work, though perhaps I’ve never really
Elleke
Boehmer
and
Anshuman
A Mondal
Wasafiri Vol. 27, No. 2, June 2012, pp. 30Á35
ISSN 0269-0055 print/ISSN 1747-1508 online # 2012 Wasafiri
http://www.tandfonline.com http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/02690055.2012.662317
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formally thought of it as a diaspora.
1
In some sense it began
with my own life experience of being from a family which has
been dispersed a great deal, and repeatedly, for over a
century. So that’s where it really began, and then also my own
experience of leaving India, coming to Oxford to study, then
travelling to Egypt, that also contributed; also the experience
of growing up as a child travelling to different countries,
different cities. The curious thing, of course, is that I’m not
from one of the real diasporic communities of India Á the
Bangladeshis, for example, the Gujaratis or Sindhis Á but
perhaps especially because of that, the topic of travel and
movement caught my interest. I wanted to write about it
because it was a challenge, because the whole terrain of the
novel has historically been so much one of exploring a place,
creating a sense of place, a sense of rootedness * as in
Turgenev, for instance, or George Eliot. It was a challenge to try
and see how you could take the form outwards, explore these
different sorts of connections. When I first wrote my books
there was a clear hostility from within a certain English
readership about writing concerned with ‘just’ travelling
around the world. Now it’s completely changed, I feel, as I
noticed yesterday; the very fact that you’re here at Oxford,
Elleke, with your ‘world’ interests * that would have been
inconceivable at one time.
EB Yes, it is a very real challenge, isn’t it, to evoke a sense of
movement from a position of rootedness or a sense of place
when characters are in motion? It is a challenge to realise a
place. I’m thinking of the teak and rubber plantations of The
Glass Palace, for example, how actualised they are, what an
imaginative tour de force must have gone into evoking them,
given how numerous characters simply move through those
places. It’s different when a writer is writing a novel like
George Eliot’s Middlemarch, say, where the characters’
relationships keep playing out within one rooted and
familiar domain.
AG Every time, you set up a new place, yes, with every new
narrative location. It does take a lot of work because the
requirement of place doesn’t go away. If you have your book
working in three different places, each of those places has to
be made real.
EB And that multiplying of places or locations means
multiplying the book, too, working it out at various different
spatial levels.
Anshuman Mondal This ties in with the first question I had in
mind, about the uses of fiction; that is, whether fiction is a
particularly amenable medium for tracing those links between
places? I’m thinking of comments you have made in the past
about the need to move away from the abstractions of
anthropology or sociology, of disciplinary knowledge, a
trajectory that In an Antique Land clearly demonstrates. Do you
feel that fiction is a particularly amenable form for tracing the
movement between places in a way that other forms can’t
because they are focused on a particular place? Is fiction the
best formal means by which to map the traces of these global
flows of people, ideas, objects and cultures?
AG That’s a very good question, to which there are so many
answers. It’s raised by this issue of recovering traces, of
course. Yet, important as it is to try and recover traces, as is
happening here with your project, it’s important, too, not to
become imprisoned by the archive, so that the only kind of
work that can be done from this vantage point, say here in
Oxford, will be circumscribed by what it already possesses.
Which is another way of saying, more bluntly, that the people
who pass through here are very elite people. They are people
who speak in a certain way, you know, look at the world in a
certain way. Thinking of Debendranath Tagore, for example,
Rabindranath’s father [his letters to Max Mueller were
examined at the exhibition workshop], all trace of conflict is
erased from his voice because he is writing in the immediate
aftermath of the Indian Mutiny when political alternatives were
already gone. So what else could he do but speak about some
universal humanity, because that was the only hope? * and,
in any case, he had built his fortune on opium. He was one of
the very few people in Bengal allowed to trade in opium; you
couldn’t do that unless you had an English partner and so on.
So that’s the problem. The elite, who have a voice, are
covering their tracks while, with other Indian modes of
dispersal, the traces are so very slight and there are so few. To
me it’s absolutely astonishing that across the entire
nineteenth century, as millions and millions of Indians are
being whisked off here and there around the world, you don’t
find a written trace of these movements, there’s not a pen
diary, nothing * no ordinary migrant who has explained
themselves on paper or created any kind of trace. The African
diaspora, by the late eighteenth century, is already producing
slave narratives, testimonies, but we don’t have that for any
Asian diaspora. We don’t have anything from the Chinese
perspective, as far as I know, and we don’t have anything from
the Indian perspective. Fiction, then, allows us to reach for the
trace.
EB Yes, this question is something which the ‘South Asians
Making Britain’ project, too, has been wrestling with; where are
these stories? Where do we dig them out? In particular, where
are the stories of those not from elites? It relates to something
Benedict Anderson once said, concerning how pathways of
travel from the colony to the metropolis are dominated by
elites.
2
A Guyanese researcher I know who is of East Asian
background has trawled through archives in Guyana and in
Calcutta in quest of traces of her background and the
experience of her indentured ancestors. Traces there are, few
and far between though they may be, but no joined-up stories,
no narrative thumb-print.
AG Well, the Mahatma Gandhi Institute in Mauritius does have
a complete collection of immigration certificates from the
1840s, so that is a very remarkable archive and those are real
Networks and Traces 31
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traces; by the 1860s you even get pictures. So those are traces
but, in addition, such a strange thing * I was looking at those
immigration certificates, their identifying markers, caste,
religion, name and so on, and then suddenly I realised that,
if you turn the certificate over, on the other side there’s
sometimes this very faint writing in Bengali. This was so
strange, something I’ve never seen remarked on anywhere.
It literally is a trace, this shadowy bit of writing. So what
happened, I imagine, is that these indentured people were
brought in, with a Bengali desk clerk sitting there, who made
some notations on the back of the form in Bengali, just the
name of the person, or the name of the person who brought
them. It’s almost miraculous when you see this thing; it brings
to mind so vividly this Bengali fellow sitting, these people
filing past, he’s making these quick notations on the back.
Most of all, you see that the distortion of names that happens
isn’t just a product of some English person’s hearing; it’s
something to do with local hearing too.
AM It’s just the skeleton of an identity and a life. It goes back
to the question I was raising, whether that’s the space you’ve
got to occupy as a novelist, with your imagination?
AG Exactly. That was the lesson I took away from In an Antique
Land. There are silences that you cannot hope to fill by
research alone. They are never going to speak back to you
because that is what Indian history is, at least popular Indian
history, just this gigantic silence. At which point you just have
to try to imagine * so you turn to the work people like Clare
Anderson and Marina Carter have done on the diaspora, which
pushes the boundaries.
AM Certainly the way you’ve been talking registers a profound
concern with popular as opposed to elite histories. It strikes
me that, even though you clearly deal with elite characters
throughout your fiction, most notably in The Shadow Lines and
The Glass Palace, your narratives tend to gravitate towards the
perspectives of the ‘subalterns’, the Bommas and Alus, the
Rajkumars, Fokirs and Deetis. One of the questions that then
arises is whether your ethical as well as political commitment
is involved in this recovering of the popular unwritten
narrative? Or are you interested more in the relationships
between elites and popular classes?
AG I would say it’s a bit of both. When I read an account of,
say, Ram Mohan Roy’s early visit to England, it is interesting
enough. But for me the idea of the lascar living in a boarding
house on Cheapside * it’s that much more interesting. The
little glimpses that one has of these characters, it’s just so
fascinating. Especially in respect of lascars; you have to really
dig around to find any references. There’s that wonderful
Melville piece about the lascar that he meets. And there are
two or three others, a couple of interesting bits from James
Fenimore Cooper’s seafaring novels, for instance. For this
reason it always amazes me when people say I must be
interested in these various things from a Conradian
perspective. Whereas what really vitiates Conrad’s work for me
is that in the background is always this lascar * but never
does the lascar in Conrad have a voice except as some sort of
maligned presence. To me, that’s a failure of imagination.
That’s why I think someone like Melville is so profoundly
interesting, because even at that time he was able to see that
there was something interesting here, to do with lascars.
EB By contrast again with Conrad, there’s a lascar I’ve picked
up in a Kipling poem, ‘For to Admire’, who is sitting up in the
rigging of a Canal-going ship bound for India, shouting a look-
out call, ‘Hum deckty hai’, which Kipling takes the trouble to
footnote as such.
AM In Sea of Poppies, it is through the vehicle of the boat that
elite personages and subaltern personages come into contact
and get channelled out onto the open ocean. Meanwhile,
everybody on that boat is passing themselves off as somebody
else. It seems to me a striking metaphor, not only for these kinds
of ordinary, non-privileged contact we are talking about, but
for how identity is fluid, movable, mobile, can be reinvented.
AG Travel allows that. I think you have several questions there.
The Neel story [in Sea of Poppies] began with a real-life incident.
I was looking at the judicial records in Calcutta and found that,
in the period 1810 to about 1830, there were three or four cases
of upper-class Bengalis being prosecuted for fraud and forgery.
Now forgery, don’t forget, was a capital crime. In England you
could actually be hanged for it until the early nineteenth
century. I was going through one of those gazetteers, and it
mentioned this one particular Babu called, believe it or not,
Babu Prawn Kissin Haldar. He was a great Babu, throwing huge
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32 Networks and Traces
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parties, lots of establishment people coming to his house,
governors and so on. Then one day he’s called up for forgery and
it turns out that his entire fortune was founded upon forging
certain documents. But he was one of the leading Babus of
Calcutta, so he got the sentence of exile for seven years. And he
wasn’t the only one. So it was really intriguing, to think of this
upper-caste Bengali, probably completely cosseted all his life,
who simply could not believe that he couldn’t get away with
this. He’d got away with everything all his life and nowsuddenly
he was up against a wall. So then you just try and think of the
entire process by which he was removed, by which he left. It
wasn’t really a matter of making anything up, because all of this
must have happened * for example, he would have been in
Lalbazar, in the Alipore gaol. So I started reading about Alipore
gaol, where a curious kind of internal structure had evolved.
Many of the convicts had chokras [boys/punks] and they
created gang-like structures on this basis.
So then I thought of Neel being in Alipore; and I thought
of Neel being on the boat; I thought of Neel as a man,
enormously intelligent. It so happens that in my own life I’ve
been in situations like that, as a highly educated Indian, but
also spending time with working people, being in villages,
travelling third-class. To me it’s fascinating that the world
makes it possible for this diversity of experiences to interact.
This, then, is the extraordinary thing * people have resources,
no one is resource-less, people come up with extraordinary
things and reinvent themselves.
AM With people who stand a bit further back from us, I
suppose you have to then do that imaginative work. There is a
narrative trajectory which you can point to in the records to say
that, yes, a character like Neel must have gone to Alipore gaol,
he must have gone through Lalbazar, he must have gone out
on a boat like that.
AG Yes. I was just reconstructing the entire series of events. And
you then begin to find actual descriptions of these voyages.
There are these convicts, there are these coolies * Mauritius
had a big convict settlement, so naturally they’d all go on the
same ship, pushed together. That entire circumstance has to
happen. There would be, like, three white people on board. I
had to work from the basis of the minimal probability.
AM But then you flesh that out. You ask, when they’re on the
boat how do they interact, what do they do? That’s your work
as a novelist.
AG It is. And certainly, with Sea of Poppies, it was technically
very, very demanding, especially at the end, because all the
characters come together in this very finely synchronised
unfolding of events. It was a very intricate bit of writing,
perhaps the most intricate bit of writing I’ve ever done.
EB It’s orchestration, isn’t it? I think of Beethoven writing the
score for his Fifth or his Ninth Symphony, the instruments
coming together in a complicated harmony.
AG That’s exactly what it is. And what’s more, that kind of
thing, nobody really does it any more. Once it’s done, people
think it looks natural, it looks easy * but it’s incredibly
challenging to orchestrate this sort of climactic build-up.
EB Taking the question of resources, but also of mixing social
levels, I was wondering about talk, about language itself as an
archive of contact, and how you accessed that? How you came
upon the part-invented, creolised speech of the lascars in Sea
of Poppies, upon that lingua franca as an unwritten history?
Can we see your interests in cross-border movement, and the
consequences of these for character and relationship,
reflected also in the remarkable liveliness, colour and mixed-
ness of spoken language in your novels? I have in mind also
the khichrie of language spoken by those shuttling between
spheres of modernity and tradition in A Circle of Reason.
AG The whole lascar thing, for me it was one of those things
where one’s intuition and one’s sense of an archive came
together. I’ll tell you what happened. The more I got drawn into
the idea of the sail ship, the more evident it became to me that
the sail ship as a technology could not function without a
common, comprehensible language. It is a technology
critically dependent upon language; an officer gives an order
and the crew has to carry it out, it has to happen
instantaneously. It’s very specialised because every rope has a
name, every moving part has its own name. Then I began to
come across these English sea dictionaries. Every [maritime]
European language has nautical dictionaries going back to the
fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. It struck me that when you
look at the crew lists, it’s clear that these Europeans are
working with largely laskari forces from all over * there are
Africans, there are Malays. So I thought to myself, ‘How does
this work, how is it possible that the officer will give an order
and the crew will understand it?’ I felt sure that there was a
dictionary somewhere. Once you have that intuition you can
narrow your search. Sure enough, I found this laskari
dictionary which was written in 1812, printed in Calcutta by
Thomas Roebuck. It was an astonishing find, completely
marvellous; I mean suddenly I found it, there it was. And
literally I found it because I knew it must exist, like intuiting
the existence of a black hole. You know from the movements
around it that it must be there.
Fortunately at that point I was at Harvard, which has some
very good library staff, so they were able to help me. I came
across one reference and immediately, it was Eureka! I was
able to track the book down, first an 1880s version, and
then the actual 1812 version in the British Library. I was
mad with excitement to see it in front of me. It turned out that it
was actually a hugely used dictionary which went through many
reprints. At one point in time no European officer could afford
to be without it. The words were from such disparate areas.
So once I had this one, then I discovered that there weren’t
just one but five or six laskari dictionaries, going up until
the 1920s. In fact, I know from people who sail to this day
that a lot of the words are still in use. On any Indian crewed
Networks and Traces 33
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ship Á and Indian crews are now more the norm than the
exception Á all of that terminology is still in use.
EB Is this lascar language a true creole, or a kind of kedgeree,
a mix? A contact language?
AG It would be more like a technical jargon, a specialised
jargon.
EB The ship as a floating world with its own language.
Wonderful.
AM Throughout your fiction you’ve mapped the Indian Ocean.
You’ve gone to the east of it, you’ve gone to the west, you’ve
gone up to the north-western corner with the Arab Gulf, and
now you’re beginning to map down the southern reaches of
the western Indian Ocean. Can you speak about what that
project over the years has meant for you?
EB Yes, I am also interested in the Indian Ocean as a field of
cultural meaning in your work. In novel after novel, as well as
imaginatively mapping the ocean, you have covered it at
different levels of interconnection. You have traced different
histories of sub-continental involvement with that ocean Á
histories of trade, histories of indenture Á which has also
meant mapping different parts of it. What has the Indian
Ocean meant for you as an imaginative space?
AG What you’re saying is absolutely true. It really has become
my project * the Bay of Bengal, the Indian Ocean, imagining
it, giving it life, filling it in. And the more I work on it the more it
fascinates me. It’s just so interesting and relatively unmapped
imaginatively, so un-thought.
AM Also, it is so much harder for states to enforce what you
call the ‘map of modern knowledge’ over the ocean than the
land.
EB Whereas the Atlantic Ocean, with the infernal triangle of
transatlantic slavery and the stories that have come out of
that, is that much more mapped qua narrative. So we come
back to that name, Conrad, for a mapping in fiction of the
Indian Ocean in the nineteenth century. Where else do we go
in the English language?
AG For me the Indian Ocean was, yes, a relatively unmapped
space, and an interest that evolved over the years. Now when I
look back it seems like such a consistent thing in my work, but
it didn’t begin by my saying to myself, ‘I’m going to do the
Indian Ocean, it hasn’t been sufficiently done’. Though now
that it’s happened I can see it’s going to be inexhaustible. I
mean, I can carry on with this for the rest of my life quite
happily.
EB Another recurring concern within your fiction is this probing
and dismantling, if you like, of border mentalities, especially
those within postcolonial states. So I wonder whether oceans
are particularly amenable as contexts for such probing? To
state the obvious, they are fluid in terms of exchange and
movement.
AG You know, to me what’s most interesting about that idea of
borders is not just the crossing of nation-state boundaries but
also that, underneath the as-it-were dome of empire, there’s
so much happening once you begin to look at it from this other
point of view; there are people who were eluding it, who were
eluding borders and creating their own realities. To me that’s
incredibly empowering, thinking of these people who
somehow create their own worlds, their own circumstances,
who are self-inventors.
AM Like the Rajkumars of this world [in The Glass Palace], who
start with nothing but use the mechanisms of empire * learn
those resources, if you like.
AG They learn where the resources are, they use them when
necessary * they’re entrepreneurs really. And that’s
something very exciting to think about.
AM As you’ve mentioned this dome of empire, perhaps we can
move on to another question about these routes and journeys
within the context of the dome, within that arena of the British
Empire, though not exclusively so. I want to ask whether it
would be correct to suggest that the Ibis Trilogy represents
perhaps your first sustained engagement with the United
States as an imperial nation, with its beginning, Sea of
Poppies, conceived under the shadow of war in Iraq and
Afghanistan.
3
The novel deals with the Opium War, an earlier
gunboat diplomacy prefiguring the pre-emptive bellicosity
articulated by the Bush administration prior to the invasion
and occupation of Iraq. Were you consciously figuring these
kinds of parallels?
AG One thing I would begin by saying is that not all my books
are about the dome of empire. Certainly The Shadow Lines
isn’t, The Circle of Reason isn’t, Antique Land isn’t * The Glass
Palace is the first one, and then Sea of Poppies. The second
thing to say is that, yes, I’d been thinking about writing about
these matters in Sea of Poppies, and then there was the Iraq
war, and it was actually very strange the way the things
dovetailed. With the Iraq war and the Opium War, there are
such clear parallelisms, most of all in the discourses that
surround them. There’s this sudden mad evangelical stuff, this
assumed piety, ‘We are doing good for the world’ kind of thing,
and beneath that the most horrific violence, the most horrific
avarice and greed. Also, I was writing the novel at a time when
this kind of capitalist ideology was absolutely in its
ascendancy, when it was thought that the market was God.
Within this context, it just baffled me that people could not
see that, for free traders, the first major testing ground was
opium. All of that has been erased from memory. In the name
of free trade, over tens of millions of people were poisoned.
34 Networks and Traces
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At a certain point my outrage was such that it passed beyond
outrage * it was almost uncontainable really. So it amazed
me when, the other day, this British journalist interviewing
me in Beijing said, ‘Well, Sea of Poppies is so different from
your other work because you seem to show empire in such
a good light.’
EB Unbelievable. Across the range of your work, it’s easily the
most chilling portrayal of empire.
AG That’s right, but I am glad the book can be read in many
different ways. She said, ‘Well, it’s so funny’ and so on. I
mean, at a certain point, what can you do? Maybe the reason it
struck this person in that way is because, while writing it, at a
certain point I realised that this story is so appalling, there’s
no way it could be written in a realistic manner. I had to make
it funny to make it bearable for myself, otherwise I * I
wouldn’t have survived it. I mean it’s just so ugly, so horrific,
so vile. All this opium stuff is such a secret, it’s not taught, it’s
not known, it’s never spoken about, the history books disguise
it. Yet, there it was, the foundation of the British Empire was
opium, it was the foundation of free markets, of capitalism.
EB Another possible survival strategy in the book is the
passion and the tenderness of the relationships between
some of the characters, that and the humour you mention, and
the charm of the Hobson-Jobson speech. I was very moved by
some of the relationships between the characters, which
transcend boundaries and social divides of different kinds.
AG Those were the things that really made it possible, yes,
absolutely. There is a certain kind of sentimentalism, you
know, which demands that when one’s writing about bad
things one writes in this victimhood vein. But that doesn’t
appeal to me at all, I don’t think it’s real * that’s not how
the world works.
AM A question now about religion. Your work seems to me to
be, when compared to a lot of your peers and contemporaries,
far more sympathetic to certain forms of religion, especially
popular religion. I wonder whether that’s the residue of your
anthropological training, where nothing human is alien, or
because of an ethical commitment to respecting differences?
AG It’s interesting that you ask that question because, at this
particular moment in time, I feel incredibly hostile to religion.
We’re living at a time when our world is being torn apart by
these things which are not religion itself, but some sort of
politicised version of a religious belief. But, on the other hand,
I grew up in a family of very believing people and I can’t ignore
that fact. No one who lives in India, no one who has any real
connection with India, can ignore that sort of religious feeling.
In fact, I don’t know if you would even call it religion * it’s just
a powerful sense of there being something other than the
material world that surrounds you.
AM You seem to be attracted to idealists of various kinds and
yet suspicious of them at the same time. Right from Balaram in
The Circle of Reason onwards.
AG Yes. See, for me idealists often are driven by the same
search for consistency that you see with the Islamists and a lot
of leftists of various tribes and so on. And yet they form a
necessary aspect of existence, you know. Without these
people the whole world would actually collapse into a very
corrupt form. So, yes, I feel very drawn to people like that. I
find them very interesting, I find them very compelling, if you
like.
EB The novels are moved by a strongly principled drive which
relates to this, which suggests we can’t do without religion, we
can’t do without ethics, without principles. The novels ask
difficult questions about what we would do if we found
ourselves under this dome of empire, in this situation of
depredation. Would we know how to proceed? Where would
we look for guidance?
AG That’s well put. The Glass Palace grew out of the
predicament in which Arjun finds himself, of being trained up
for an elite, an elite that doesn’t think about the surrounding
world, that is only educated up to a certain point. And then
this devastating reality breaks in. How do they deal with it,
what do they do? That was for me a compelling and important
question; also a very, very poignant one. Thinking of what
Richard Sorabji said last night about Cornelia Sorabji * hers
was a world filled with individual generosities, something that
is a very real aspect of those connections you are tracing. Yet
beneath it is this iron fist.
EB That dialectic between individual generosity and the
unforgiving imperial system is perhaps an appropriately
inconclusive point at which to draw things to a close.
AM Amitav Ghosh, thank you so much for spending this time
with us.
AG Thank you. It was a pleasure.
Notes
1 See Amitav Ghosh, ‘The Diaspora in Indian Culture’. Public
Culture 2.1 (1989): 73Á78. Reprinted in The Imam and the
Indian: Prose Pieces. Delhi: Ravi Dayal and Permanent
Black, 2002. 243Á50.
2 Benedict Anderson. Imagined Communities. London: Verso,
1991.
3 For a related reading, see Amitav Ghosh, ‘Imperial
Temptations’. Incendiary Circumstances: A Chronicle of the
Turmoil of our Times. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2005.
26Á31.
Networks and Traces 35
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